Unbloodied Heroes 6: Skills Reimagined

This is the final blog of my Unbloodied Heroes series exploring alternatives to 4e’s noncombat mechanics. In this blog, I will describe a proposed overhaul of the Skill system. The blogs in this series are:

Unbloodied Heroes 1: An Introduction
Unbloodied Heroes 2: Exposition from a Point of View
Unbloodied Heroes 3: Interludes: Backgrounds and Retraining
Unbloodied Heroes 4: Travel and Group Efforts
Unbloodied Heroes 5: Exploration and Individual Efforts
Unbloodied Heroes 6: Skills Reimagined
Related to this blog series are my prior series on Combat Investment, Social Challenges, and Protagonocentrism.

In prior blogs in this series I discussed how exposition should be handled through Points of View, how there should be an expansion of Backgrounds and Retraining, how team endeavors should be handled through Group Efforts, and the problems of Skill Spread. How else would I change things from the ground up?

Lessons as Noncombat Feats

4e set a laudable goal: players should not have to choose between combat and noncombat effectiveness. And yet, within the Feats, some noncombat mechanics remain, such as Skill Training, Skill Focus, Linguistics, Ritual Training, etc. I propose a new category of Feats – Lessons – which would apply exclusively to noncombat mechanics. Points of View, Group Efforts, Backgrounds, and Skills could all be built upon through Lessons.

Two Abilities per Skill

Skill Spread occurs in part because many Skills use a character’s worst score. By giving every character an option of two abilities to use, the Skill Spread can be lessened. This also affords players more leeway to describe how their characters use Skills. An otherwise unpersuasive character can still impress people with his physical presence, while a person who stumbles over his toes can still use his Intelligence to figure out how to disarm a trap.

Limit Numerical Bonuses

Skill Spread also occurs in part because characters can accumulate Skill bonuses too easily. Training, Skill Focus, Backgrounds, Aid Other, and magic items all contribute bonuses. Eliminate almost all of these bonuses and limit the bonus from Skill Training to +2 (equivalent to the attack bonus one gets from training in a weapon). Mechanics that enhance Skill checks should do so by “unlocking” a new option for a Skill rather than by granting numerical bonuses. For example, a character might learn to use Acrobatics to get up from prone as a minor action. This makes Skills feel more dynamic, encouraging their use.

Track Skills to Defenses

Skill bonuses should follow the progression of NPC defenses, just as attack bonuses (in theory) do. This may require us to add inherent bonuses to make up for the lack of enhancement bonuses from magic items. However, I feel the benefit of letting Stealth be opposed by Will, Thievery’s pick-pocketing by Reflexes, and an Athletics-based grab opposed by Fortitude, is well worth the trade-off.

Consolidate the Skill List

Reduce the Skill list to a mere nine Skills. Although this seems small, remember that non-combat mechanics would be supplemented by Points of View, Interlude mechanics, and Lessons. Each Skill would have two Abilities assigned to it, so each Ability would be related to three Skills. Every character would then get to choose three Skills in which to be trained. This could be supplemented by Lessons. However, no Ability can modify more than two skills. Characters would choose which Ability modifies which Skill at first level, but would be able to reassign Abilities during retraining.

With each character trained in one-third of the available Skills, it is more likely that a character can find a Skill to use in any given Skill-based encounter. By limiting the possible bonuses, Skill Spread is reduced and it becomes easier to assign DCs to a Skill check (particularly if they track the progression of defenses).

The nine Skills I have selected are as follows:
Acrobatics (Str or Dex): This Skill remains mostly unchanged.
Athletics (Str or Con): This Skill remains mostly unchanged.
Bluff (Wis or Cha): This Skill remains mostly unchanged.
Heal (Int or Wis): This Skill remains mostly unchanged.
Impress (Str or Cha): This Skill allows a character to use physical presence and natural charisma to sway characters. (This incorporates and expands upon Intimidate.)
Rhetoric (Int or Cha): This Skill governs the ability to sway characters through effective, rational communication. (This incorporates and expands upon Diplomacy.)
Survival (Con or Wis): This Skill helps the character navigate and survive hostile environments. (This incorporates Endurance and the non-expository elements of Nature.)
Stealth (Con or Dex): This Skill remains mostly unchanged.
Thievery (Dex or Int): This Skill remains mostly unchanged.  (In the expanded rules -- see below -- the Skill allows access to Thatrics.)

Optional Rules: Expanded Skill List
One very small problem with this method is that only three skills – Impress, Survival, and Thievery - offer a choice between a physical and mental Ability. An optional rule I’ve considered is to add a Skill for each of the power sources. (Obviously this assumes future editions would use the same power sources as are in 4e.) Such Skills would not operate as vehicles for exposition (like Arcane, Religion, etc. do now). Rather, they would give characters access to cantrips tailored for the power source. Thievery would serve as the Skill for the Martial power source in this scheme. You can see a sample of what these cantrips might look like in my related blog Cantrips Expanded. The "Power Source Skills" would be:

Arcane (Con or Int): Allows access to Cantrips.
Divine
(Str or Wis): Allows access to Orisons.
Elemental (Con or Cha): Allows access to Twists.
Primal (Dex or Wis): Allows access to Obsecrations.
Psionic (Str or Int): Allows access to Charms.
Shadow
(Dex or Cha): Allows access to Imprecations.

Players using this expanded list would still train in only three Skills, and no Ability could be used as the modifier for more than two Skills. The “Power Source Skills” would be “trained-only” Skills that operate as exceptions to the limit on how many Skills a single Ability may modify. (In other words, the Power Source Skills are always modified by the higher Ability modifier.)

Thank you for listening to my ramblings about noncombat mechanics. I hope you were entertained.

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